By Earl Hendry
In the recent columns about the founding of our community, in the high mountains and river valleys of what was to become East Tennessee, we have followed the writings of Theodore Roosevelt from his masterpiece The Winning of The West, which is concluded here, as he explains the workings of their free and democratic institution, The Watauga Association:
“They heard and adjudicated all cases of difference between the settlers themselves; and took measures for the common safety. In fact the dwellers, in this little outlying frontier commonwealth, exercised the rights of full statehood for a number of years; establishing in true American style a purely democratic government with representative institutions…
“The court or committee held their sessions at stated and regular times… They saw to the recording of deeds and wills, settled all questions of debt, issued marriage licenses and carried on a most vigorous warfare against lawbreakers, especially horse-thieves… [One record shows that a horse-thief was arrested on Monday, tried on Wednesday, and hung on Friday of the same week.] For six years their government continued in full vigor; then, in February 1778, North Carolina having organized Washington County, which included all of what is now Tennessee, the governor of that State appointed justices of the peace and militia officers for the new county, and the old system came to an end.
“For several years after they made a lease with the Cherokees the men of the Watauga were not troubled by their Indian neighbors. They had to fear nothing more than a drought, a freshet, a forest fire, or an unusually deep snowfall if hunting on the mountains in mid-winter. They lived in peace, hunting and farming, marrying, giving in marriage and rearing many healthy children. By degrees they wrought out of the stubborn wilderness comfortable homes, filled with plenty. The stumps were drawn out of the clearings, and other grains were sown besides corn.
“Beef, pork and mutton were sometimes placed on the table, besides the more common venison, bear meat and wild turkey. The women wove good clothing, the men procured good food, the log cabins, if homely and rough, yet gave ample warmth and shelter. The families throve, and life was happy, even though varied with toil, danger and hardship. Books were few, and it was some years before the first church — Presbyterian, of course — was started in the region. The backwoods Presbyterians [were largely Scots and Scots-Irish] managed their church affairs much as they did their civil government: each congregation appointed a committee to choose ground, to build a meeting-house, to collect the minister’s salary, and to pay all charges, by taxing the members proportionately for the same, the committee being required to turn in a full account, and receive instructions, at a general session or meeting held twice every year.
“Thus the Watauga folk were the first Americans who, as a separate body, moved into the wilderness to hew out dwellings for themselves and their children, trusting only to their own shrewd heads, stout hearts and strong arms, unhelped and unhampered by the power nominally their sovereign. They built up a commonwealth which had many successors; they showed that the frontiersmen could do their work unassisted; for they not only proved that they were made of stuff stern enough to hold its own against outside pressure of any sort, but they also made it evident that having won the land they were competent to govern both it and themselves… The truth is, that in starting a new nation in a new country, as we have done, while there are exceptional chances to be taken advantage of, there are also exceptional dangers and difficulties to be overcome.”
“None but heroes can succeed wholly in the work. It is a good thing for us at times to compare what we have done with what we could have done, had we been better and wiser; it may make us try in the future to raise our abilities to the level of our opportunities… The Watauga settlers outlined in advance the nation’s work. They tamed the rugged and shaggy wilderness, they bid defiance to outside foes, and they successfully solved the difficult problem of self-government.”
Thus, we see that our founding fathers had established an entirely new form of government here in the mountain fastness on the frontier. Democratic rule does not seem unusual to us today, but in that time and place it was totally revolutionary — such a “dangerous example” (as royal governor Lord Dunmore had characterized it) had never been done before. Our forefathers were truly the “first men of American birth to establish a free and independent community on this continent.” We were the first Americans to revolt against British rule, as the national Declaration of Independence did not take place until July 4, 1776 — more than four years later!